>Two questions about mystery writing

>I’m reading (listening to) Lisa Scottoline’s latest Bennie Rosato mystery, Think Twice. It’s too preposterous for its own good (Bennie’s evil identical twin Alice buries alive and then impersonates our heroine), but like many a mediocre book it makes me think about how good books get written. My first question is about suspense, and I’m hoping Nancy Werlin is reading. How does a writer judge just how long a suspense element can be, uh, suspended, without irritating the reader? Part of the task, I imagine, is to keep the suspense credible–how long can Alice impersonate Bennie without someone catching on?–but another part is keeping the reader from losing patience and skipping to the end or tossing the book aside. When does a writer know she’s hit the sweet spot of resolution, not too soon, not too late?

My other question is for readers and has to do with series books–Think Twice is something like Scottoline’s tenth book about Bennie and her all-lady law firm. When we’ve been following a series, what does it take to make us give up? I think we forgive weak elements or even weak entire entries because we feel invested in the characters, and there is no question I’ll finish Think Twice and eagerly anticipate the next one. But sometimes it can take just one book, bad in some unforgivable way, to make me swear off a series forever and never look back. I dumped Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series when one of them seemed pruriently violent to me. I dropped Jon Land’s books about the American and Israeli detective team when he put his heroine on an iceberg parked in the Red Sea. But is it that the author has made a fatal mistake, or that he hadn’t really had me hooked in the first place?

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    >I'd like to ask if the writer's of mystery and suspense think they are writing for a broad audience, or do they think of themselves as writing for a niche? If you stick your heroine on an iceberg in the Red Sea, do you think, well I lose some readers, but the ones for whom nothing is too preposterous are just going to love this?

    Is a book written for a niche not as "good" as a book that has a wider audience?

  2. Anonymous says:

    >Oh, what an embarrassing little apostrophe. Read that "writers of mystery and suspense" please.

  3. >I'm here (you're on my RSS feed, Roger), but have galleys (next book, EXTRAORDINARY) to correct on a tight deadline.

    I'll be back this evening and explain how I think myself through the question of how far I dare try the reader's patience and credulity, and the (to my mind) crucial roles of point of view and characterization and well, sleight of hand.

    Anonymous is right that patience and credulity vary depending on the reader. But it would not only be cynical of the writer to decide that "most" readers will swallow stupid stuff, but ultimately damaging to her craft too. Readers DO notice when a writer's work goes downhill. And frankly, writerly arrogance might also play a role.

    I love thinking about this stuff. More later!

    Nancy Werlin

  4. >Okay, so here’s what I think, after a caveat that I am only one writer. Others do things differently, and I hope others will chime in with how they handle suspense… which is not, of course, an element native only to thrillers.

    >> How does a writer judge just how long a suspense element can be, uh, suspended, without irritating the reader? Part of the task, I imagine, is to keep the suspense credible but another part is keeping the reader from losing patience and skipping to the end or tossing the book aside. When does a writer know she's hit the sweet spot of resolution, not too soon, not too late?<<

    Credibility. This is huge. For me the guiding star is: what would the main character *really* do in this preposterous situation? (What would an actual, sane person do? What would I do?) Obviously there are writers who don’t care about this; their main characters are superheroes or James Bond or vampires or whatever. But I care, and I don’t care only about the physical plausibility of events (an iceberg in the Red Sea is extreme, but so are some of my situations – but you can and should work to make the physically incredible credible in the world of your book) but about emotional plausibility. If I keep my character’s reactions real, the reader is likely to follow along through craziness. Beneath the level of the reader’s consciousness, they’re thinking: “Okay, let’s say I had to make a shirt without needle or seam… Lucy’s doing basically what I’d do; she’s thinking the way I’d think.”

    Trust. It’s certainly possible to try the reader’s patience by throwing in stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but still, if the reader feels in sure hands (the writer has that mysterious “authority”, which they get by getting all sorts of details absolutely right so you trust them on the occasional big “trust me” leap), you can get away with stuff. Once the writer has truly established authority and trust, she can get away with rather a lot, so long as the reader believes that things will be explained (and of course the author must make good on that implicit promise).

    Part of making good is to not keep secrets very long from the reader, or even at all. The reader is irritated when he or she becomes aware that a secret is being kept. So, herein lies sleight of hand – distract the reader, so the reader isn’t even aware that information is missing; the reader is too busy thinking about other, relevant , and important things in the book, things that he or she is privy to.

    >> When we've been following a series, what does it take to make us give up? I think we forgive weak elements or even weak entire entries because we feel invested in the characters<<

    Yes. So a series writer can get lazy and not work so hard at building credibility, trust, and using good sleight of hand. (And the dozen other elements that go into a good novel.)

    >>But is it that the author has made a fatal mistake, or that he hadn't really had me hooked in the first place?<<

    He didn’t hook you IN THIS BOOK. He hooked you before and took that for granted.

    Those are my thoughts tonight, anyway.

  5. GraceAnne LadyHawk says:

    >I get really attached to mystery series, from V.I. Warshawski to Stephanie Plum, from Donna Leon to Andrea Camilleri. I more or less stopped reading Sue Grafton, though, not because she wasn't still fun but I lost interest in Kinsey. Suddenly, I didn't care any more, and I am not sure why.
    Putting an iceberg in the Red Sea would, I confess, have done me in, also.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >This is probably too late, Nancy, but I think I didn't make myself clear. Probably because I used the iceberg example. Have ever felt that making a book better will give it a smaller audience?

    For example, X amount of suspense will cause a certain number of people to make a break for the last page of the book, but you do it anyway because there is some smaller audience that you have in mind that will prefer the book that way?

  7. >>>Have you ever felt that making a book better will give it a smaller audience?<<

    Yes, sadly, I think this can and does happen. Making a book better sometimes means it will have a smaller audience, but mostly (in my opinion) because "better" means you are adding in complexity and emotional depth that a large number of readers don't want and find extraneous.

    But I still don't understand your example/question about suspense and "making a book better." The more suspense, the better — if it's done well.

    And one more point… I never, never, never think about audience size and develop my book accordingly. There's no way to judge that, for one thing, and for another, that's a sure way to derail altogether.The writer's head is best kept in the story itself, in my opinion.

  8. >Oh, wait! Do you mean the tension is too high, therefore unbearable, therefore some people peek at the end (and "ruin" the suspense)?

    That's fine. I think the readers who like to peek at the end will do it anyway, even if the tension is lower. I'd never bother my pretty little head trying to manipulate end-peekers into not peeking. Let 'em look. They enjoy their books that way.

    Plus, sometimes I tell the end up front in the book (see RULES OF SURVIVAL). Tension isn't actually necessarily about what will or won't happen in the end.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >Thank you, Nancy. That was just the kind of answer I was looking for.

  10. Margaret Willey says:

    >I am enjoying this exchange about writing mysteries! I am writing a novel now with several mysteries, struggling with all the issues mentioned–credibility, reader patience, building the tension carefully. For me the hardest part is the credibility piece because I have had experience in the past with thinking something is quite credible, like a character's motivation to keep a secret, and then having the plausibility questioned. That can make a mystery-loving author insecure next time around. Which I accept (my inner insecure author) But I do agree with Nancy Werlin's comment about audience size–if I actively worried about that, I would never get anything done. Very interesting exchange, and helpful!

    Margaret Willey

  11. Roger Sutton says:

    >But there's high tension and high tension. When the author has done her job, you don't want to skip to the end because you're too involved with the story and characters to want to miss anything. But if the strings are showing–like the artificial use of short chapters to pump the suspense–it just feels annoying. Scottoline does this a lot, at least in this book, and she also here indulges in something I hate, where the narrative all of a sudden gets coy after freely roaming around in the main character's head, like "when Benny read what was in the letter she knew what she would have to do next." So. Irritating.

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